Monday, February 4, 2013

You may be teaching, but they're not learning

People are forever saying that homework teaches kids to be responsible, or to manage responsibility.

Well, yesterday I asked my students what the word "responsibility" means. They said, "Something you need to do." So I asked them to list their responsibilities. Here's what they said:

Taking out the garbage and recycling
Walking the dog
Caring for a pet
Setting the table
Washing the dishes
Brushing your teeth
Cleaning my room
Picking up after myself
Not leaving my things lying around until my mother says she's going to throw it out if I don't put it away

Notice anything missing? I've been teaching this lesson for seven years, and not ONCE has a kid said homework unless I prompted them.

Not. Once.

Clearly my students ARE learning a sense of responsibility. They have heard the word enough to know what it means, and they associate it with real responsibilities that they have. But they don't associate that with homework. They're learning responsibility from chores around the house, from having pets, and from living with other people. They're not learning it from doing worksheets.

Here's my idea of homework that would actually teach something useful. Together, teacher and child set a goal. Then the child has to meet that goal in the allotted time or explain why she didn't. That's it.

So let's say the child sets a goal to knit a scarf. She says she can do it in a week. At the end of the week, she either comes to school with a scarf, or she explains that she worked on her knitting for half an hour each day but she made a lot of mistakes and had to start over a number of times so she wasn't able to complete the scarf. Assuming that her parents can verify the effort, the teacher and child would then set a more reasonable goal for the next week based on the child's skill level.

Or maybe the child sets a different kind of goal: I'm going to ride my bike around the park 100 times. She'd have to figure out how many times she'd have to ride each day, and how to keep track of her laps, and how to document her effort. If it rained all week, then she'd have to figure out how to deal with that setback. Will she ask for an extension? Ride all 100 laps when the sun comes out? Make a different goal for the week?

The goal could also be associated with a learning topic: make a comic book about the Revolutionary War (or a video, or a painting, or a story, or sew a costume.) But that will only work if the child is able to use his strengths when home. The hard, uncomfortable, muscle-flexing work should be done at school where there is a professional to help. If a child needs extra practice, he should get extra practice at school when he has the time and energy to dedicate to learning. Home should be for recharging, for pursuing other interests, and for spending time with family. But if a child's interests can be channeled into teaching responsibility, then a child will feel validated and will learn.

This kind of homework would allow children to learn real world skills about time management, negotiation and problem solving while sharing strengths with their teachers and classmates. It would also help them integrate their interests into school, so that they don't feel like learning stops at the classroom door.

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